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Vegetarian Journal Cover

Vegetarian Journal


January/February 1997
Volume XVI, Number 1

Air-atarians: What to Do When Your Toddler Won't Eat!

By Carol Coughlin, R.D.

"My child nursed like crazy as an infant, ate all the baby food I ever offered her, but now practically lives on air! How can I get her to eat?" Ahh, another "Air-atarian." Those toddlers who seem to eat so little it seems as if they are living on air. Can you get them to eat more? Should you get them to eat more? This can be a time of concern and frustration for parents.

Growth Rates

Children grow two to three times faster as infants than as toddlers. Therefore, toddlers will eat less per pound than babies. Don't let the growth charts scare you. The 25th percentile means that about 25 percent of children are at or below this line. Ask your pediatrician if your child is off from the growth pattern she set as an infant. A sudden drop from the 75th to the 25th percentile is of concern. But if your child has steadily moved along at the 25th percentile, then that is probably her or his natural growth pattern.

Kids have little stomachs. Don't expect a toddler to eat an adult portion. The rule of thumb is one tablespoon of food per year of age. So if your two-year-old eats one tablespoon of peas, then she or he ate half a serving. A serving of a protein food is one ounce. And you should count one half of a slice of bread as a serving. Little stomachs can fill up fast on high fiber foods. It is okay to serve some refined grains. Foods like nut butters, avocados, and tofu give more concentrated calories without overfilling small stomachs.

You Can Lead Them to the Table...

Children this age are learning to make decisions and become more independent. They develop preferences as to what toy animal to sleep with, what clothes to wear, and what music to listen to. Unfortunately, this includes food. My advice is to go with the flow. No child ever voluntarily starved himself to death. He or she will eat when hungry.
Your job as a parent is to determine: What food comes in the house, where food is served, and when food is served.

Your child decides: Whether or not to eat the food and how much to eat. Nobody out-stubborns a toddler. Don't get into a power struggle over food. Better for your child to go two weeks without eating a vegetable than to damage your relationship with your child, and your child's relationship with food by forcing her or him to eat. This only reinforces dislikes and makes mealtime unpleasant for everyone.

Clean House

This is a critical time to be sure that all the food in the house is healthy. I cannot emphasize this enough. Any savvy four-year-old will refuse spinach if she can hold out for a piece of pie. Why eat lunch when there is a dish full of candy in the living room? If everything in the house is healthy, then you can honestly say, "You can have anything you want."

If you do not want your child to eat it, then why buy it? A cookie jar on the counter is like a sign hanging around your neck that says, "Nag me for a cookie 30 times a day." If your children see a frozen dessert when you open the freezer to get the green beans, guess what they will ask for? By ridding the house of less nutritious foods, you allow the healthy food you want them to eat to get center stage.

Set a Good Example

Do you snack on cookies or fruit? Do you drink water and juice or coffee and soda? If you eat your 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, your child will learn to do that also.

"You Don't Like That!"

If you tell children they do not like something they will believe it. Tell them they are picky and they will be. Many times kids will eat foods at a restaurant or at a friend's house that they refused at home. Encourage them to try foods and see if they like them.

Catch Them When They Are Hungry

Children are occasionally too tired to eat. They might be better off eating dinner after a nap. Some kids do need time to wake up a bit before eating breakfast. If your child seems very hungry at 3 p.m. and less hungry at dinner, then move his dinner to the afternoon and he or she can have a snack when the adults eat dinner.

Have trouble getting them to the table? Get rid of distractions by shutting off the TV and the radio. Give them a one minute notice so they can wind down their activity and know what is coming next. Or bring the table to them. A picnic on the floor might be fun. Set out tropical fruits that your child can discover on her safari in the jungle. This sure beats trying to bring her back from another continent for a meal and a struggle.

If a food is refused, serve it again. A child may have tossed the green beans on the floor to see if gravity was still working. There are so many reasons for a kid to refuse a food: he is tired, he is teething, he heard a truck go down the street, or he is coming down with a bad cold. Don't necessarily scratch that food off your list forever. Think about the foods you liked as a child. Now look at what you eat now. Tastes change. So just because she spit it out at age 2 does not mean she won't ask for seconds at age 4.

Sneaky Parent Tricks

Out of sight is out of mind. Hide unpopular foods. Puree the lentils in the spaghetti sauce. Mix some carrot juice in the orange juice. Put wheat germ and pumpkin in the pancakes. Who would have guessed there were turnips in the mashed potatoes?

Feast and Famine

Children naturally vary their food intake from day to day, just as they vary their activity. Therefore, evaluate your child's eating by looking at a week or two of meals, not just one day. Try keeping a food diary of everything eaten--and I mean one bite of your sandwich, one cracker in the car, six grapes at Grandma's, etc. It is hard to remember that Brittany ate everything not nailed down all last week when she has refused nearly everything you offered for the past two days. When you add it all up you might just find that your "air-atarian" is eating pretty close to the well balanced vegetarian diet that you had been hoping for all along.

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

Thanks to volunteer Jeanie Freeman for converting this article to HTML

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